Another week, another bout with confusion in the SEC. Here’s my latest attempt to rank this mysterious assembly.
Florida. I think the Gators are the undisputed top dogs in this conference, though they’re not healthy. They’ve suffered multiple injuries in recent weeks. But Thursday night’s 68-47 win at Texas A&M, a team coming off a weekend win at Kentucky, was another reminder that the Gators are probably a step ahead of the field. They might face Missouri without Laurence Bowers this weekend, but I’m not convinced the Tigers would beat Florida even if they were at full strength.
Ole Miss. The Rebels beat a Bowers-less Missouri team on Saturday. But Bowers doesn’t handle the ball. Give Ole Miss credit for forcing 19 turnovers in that matchup. The program followed that with an overtime win at Vanderbilt. That wasn’t as pretty. In the past week, however, the Rebels have proved that they’re legitimate SEC title contenders because they’re balanced (33rd in adjusted offensive efficiency, 30th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy).
Missouri. Frank Haith called out his team after its 64-49 loss at Ole Miss on Saturday. He understood that the loss couldn't only be pinned on Bowers’ absence. Missouri wasn’t gritty on the road. The Tigers were careless with possessions, too. But they responded with a double-digit win over Georgia on Wednesday. And the Tigers will need that same tenacity when they play Florida on the road this weekend. Any effort from the Tigers that’s comparable to their display during a loss at Ole Miss will be inexcusable.
Texas A&M. They went on the road and beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Saturday. It was John Calipari’s first conference home loss at Kentucky. But the same Texas A&M team that pulled off the upset in Lexington was crushed by Florida on Thursday night. This is where this league gets very messy and interchangeable. Texas A&M is ranked 143rd in adjusted defensive efficiency. And it’s nearly a month removed from a home loss to Southern. So what does that say about the rest of the SEC?
Kentucky. I don’t care about Kentucky’s talent. I don’t care about Kentucky’s potential. I don’t care about Kentucky’s NBA prospects. None of that matters anymore. The Wildcats are an average squad right now. Could that change in the coming weeks? Sure. Will that change in the coming weeks? I don’t know. Calipari’s crew has offered only minimum signs of growth in recent weeks. But this team has the highest ceiling in the league. It just doesn’t know how to get there.
Arkansas. I appreciate Arkansas’ philosophy. The Razorbacks’ defense is so-so. But they can score with any team in the country as long as BJ Young and Marshawn Powell are on the floor. And that’s a formula for success in the SEC because most teams in this league can do little to slow that offensive attack. They’re the best of the imbalanced programs in the SEC. But Saturday’s road game at Ole Miss is Arkansas’ chance to prove that it’s more substance than flash. A double-overtime win over Auburn earlier this week wasn’t very convincing.
Alabama. On Wednesday, Bama went to Starkville, Miss., and defeated Mississippi State by 32 points. And though the Bulldogs have struggled all season, it still was one of Alabama’s best efforts. Anthony Grant’s program forced 20 turnovers and connected on 53.4 percent of its shots. Bama pulled off that road victory without Trevor Releford, who suffered a sprained ankle earlier this week. The Crimson Tide have a favorable schedule for a turnaround with single matchups against Missouri (lost in Columbia on Jan. 8), Ole Miss, Kentucky and Florida. But Bama will have to bring that intensity consistently to surge in the SEC.
Auburn. On Dec. 29, Tony Barbee’s program went to Champaign, Ill., and nearly knocked off the Illini. It was an impressive stand for an Auburn program that was coming off a home loss against Winthrop. Since then? The Tigers are 3-1 with wins over Florida State, LSU and South Carolina and a double-overtime loss at Arkansas. Frankie Sullivan (17.8 points per game) is the only player averaging double figures. But the Tigers have shot 41 percent from the 3-point line through three conference games.
Mississippi State. Rick Ray’s program is so depleted that it doesn’t have 10 players to use in practice. The Bulldogs even lost a grad assistant to a season-ending knee injury. So Ray had reason to be excited when his squad won its first two SEC games. But a lopsided loss to an Alabama team that hasn’t played well in recent weeks was just more evidence of the inconsistency in this conference and within MSU's program.
Tennessee. This is an average squad. The Vols’ win over a ranked Wichita State team a few weeks ago appears to be an anomaly. They’ve lost four in a row. They’ve allowed an average of 78.3 PPG in their 0-3 start in the SEC. And how does Jarnell Stokes fail to crack double figures in six out of 10 games? I thought this would be the season that Stokes would emerge as one of the nation’s top young talents. But like the rest of the program, he’s struggling.
South Carolina. Coach Frank Martin left Kansas State for this? Sure, the Gamecocks could improve in the coming years once Martin lures in better prospects. But they’re a mess right now. Their 54 turnovers in three games lead the league. And their offense is ranked 194th in adjusted offensive efficiency. Even in the SEC, they’re not going to win many games if they continue to average 18.0 turnovers per outing.
LSU. This is why nonconference win tallies are so deceptive. The Tigers had won nine games entering SEC play. But they’d also played one of the nation’s worst nonconference slates (279th per ESPN.com’s RPI rankings). Now, they’re 0-3 in the SEC. I understand the goal. Coaches want to boost the confidence within their respective programs before conference play begins. But it’s often false confidence.
Vanderbilt. This young Commodores squad already has endured a pair of heartbreaking losses. It nearly knocked off Kentucky on Jan. 10 (a 60-58 loss). And Tuesday, Kevin Bright hit a 3-pointer with 3.2 seconds to go to give Vandy a three-point edge over Ole Miss. But Marshall Henderson connected on a buzzer-beating shot to send the game into overtime. The Rebels outscored Vandy 11-1 in that extra period. So close. Can they build on those efforts and finish games?
Georgia. Mark Fox is trying to figure it out. He’s so limited in what he can fix because the Bulldogs have a personnel issue. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (16.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg) is a talented prospect who doesn’t appear to have a supporting cast that can help him pull Georgia out of the SEC’s basement. But the good news is that the Bulldogs have faced Missouri and Florida in two of their first three games. They’ll eventually be matched up with SEC squads who have similar challenges.